The threat was considered serious enough that contingency plans had been drawn to quickly disperse the inaugural crowd. If that became necessary, Rahm said, the Secret Service would alert Obama, who would instruct the crowd to follow directions and leave in an orderly fashion.
“I can’t read the speechwriters into this, so I want you to write a brief statement for the President-elect,” Rahm told me. “Meet him right before the ceremony in the Speaker’s office and give it to him. He’ll put it in his pocket in case it’s needed.”
Out for an evening of celebration before I began my work as senior adviser to the President of the United States, this news brought instant sobriety. I could not sleep, haunted by police sirens that pierced the night and the specter of a looming catastrophe.
The following morning, I was committed to do television interviews while Susan and my son Ethan were invited to attend the traditional pre-inaugural service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church with the Obamas and Bushes.
Fearful that the attack could take place there, I was desperate to tell my wife and son not to go, but I would have had to share what I knew, and I was sworn to secrecy. I could only hope it was a decision I would not regret for the rest of my life.
I delivered the remarks to the President-elect, as planned. He slipped them into his coat pocket without reading them, and we exchanged a few words about the journey on which we were embarking.
A few minutes later, Susan and I sat on the reviewing stand behind the rostrum from which Obama would take the oath of office, looking out at a sea of humanity that extended from the Capitol all the way to the Washington monument.
It was a wonderful, inspiring scene, yet I couldn’t shed the ominous knowledge that potential terrorists might be lurking in that vast crowd.
Thankfully, they were not. But those harrowing 24 hours were a bracing introduction to the grave threats and profound responsibilities we were about to assume.
El miércoles, Joe Biden will take the oath of office from those same Capitol steps, but it will be a starkly different scene. Even before the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, attendance at the inauguration was going to be limited to dignitaries and a relative small number of invited guests because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now Biden will have to offer our battered nation words of hope and unity from within a fortified green zone, constructed to protect him and the incoming national leadership from homegrown terrorists.
The man who did so much to radicalize these Americans will be en route to Florida by then, breaking yet one more norm by skipping the swearing-in of his successor. But he made the right decision. It would have been profane to see him sitting on the same steps the mob he incited had stormed just two weeks earlier.
As he wings away to his own uncertain future, Donald Trump will leave for his successor myriad crises and threats that eclipse even what Obama faced when he assumed office amid war and recession in 2009.
I’m thinking about our new President and his team as they prepare to take on these extraordinary burdens. Every American should be grateful for their willingness to help lead us out of this awful mess. And though there are clearly some in this bitterly divided nation who would vehemently disagree, we all have a stake in their success.